Tuesday, January 31, 2006

What to make of A1GP?

I may as well come clean right away and admit that, other than the Brands Hatch sprint race, which I watched via the website in an internet cafe, I haven't actually seen any A1GP races. But then why is this? The problem is that, unlike Champcars, F1, GP2 and even the Renault World Series, it is not possible to watch A1GP in Britain without subscribing to Sky Sports and handing over a hefty chunk of money to Rupert Murdoch.

I can't help feeling that this is quite a substantial obstacle to A1GP establishing itself in the popular imagination, at least in the UK. If it were on Grandstand on a Sunday afternoon, then I expect that people would follow it - after all there's not a great deal of motorsport on during the winter and there's a pretty competitive British driver to follow.

The other obstacle is that the drivers themselves are not exactly household names. The bulk of the drivers at the front of the A1GP field come from the sharp end of last year's GP2 grid, which means that while they are pretty quick guys, they are not yet big enough names to bring in the crowds on their own. Alexandre Premat, Nelson Piquet Jr, Neel Jani and Nicolas LaPierre have all claimed either race wins or pole positions in GP2, and between them, they have won all bar one of the year's races. Also there or thereabouts, and probably better known to the casual viewer are a sprinkling of ex-Grand Prix drivers, none of whom could really be said to have made the grade. Jos Verstappen, the only one to have actually won an A1GP race was probably the most successful of the bunch, although he would appear to be as accident prone and erratic as he was during his F1 career. Ralph Firman, Alex Yoong and Tomas Enge are usually towards the front of the midfield, and illustrate well that good, competent professional racing drivers can still end up looking out of their depth in F1.

The line-up gets more uneven, and, ahem, eccentric, towards the back of the field. This is perhaps no great surprise when one considers some of the countries involved. Thus far, Lebanon, China and Russia have yet to produce a professional racing driver worth the name. India's only real top-liner, Karthikayen, has better things to do, while Pakistan have chosen a novel solution to the problem of its own lack of racing talent, and are running Adam Kahn, who is only nominally Pakistani (And when he fell ill in Durban, he was replaced by Enrico Toccacello, who is no more Asian, never mind Pakistani, than I am.

If the organisers had hoped to attract really big names to the series, then they must be feeling rather disappointed. In some cases, its worse than that - is there really no American better qualified than Phil Giebler? And is Max Busnelli the best that Italy can do? Part of the problem is that its hard to see anyone furthering their career via success in A1. Matt Halliday and Steven Simpson might just enhance their reputation via their solid performances, but nobody who has already raced in F3000 or GP2 is going to race to the top of any F1 team bosses' list because he happens to have won a few A1GP races. Doubly so as the French team have been so dominant that its been very hard for anyone whose name is not LaPierre or Premat to get noticed at all.

Perhaps the formula isn't quite right. Certainly I can't understand why a brand new 500BHP Lola single seater should be so damned slow - closer to the pace of an F3 car than an F3000, never mind a GP2 car. Perhaps they are being run on rubber which is simply too hard, or perhaps it is a result of a body shape dictated more by aesthetics than aerodynamics. Either way, it does the series no favours that the cars are so different from other major single seater formulae that it might not even serve very usefully as a learning category for aspiring young drivers.

The question on my mind now is: Will there still be an A1GP series this time next year? This might seem overly pessimistic but its hard to see where the money is coming from even at the moment. There's plenty of it in Dubai, and much of that is concentrated in the hands of the Royal Family, who are backing the series. But can they really afford to single-handedly bankroll their own big single seater series? And will they want to once they realise its unlikely ever to make them any money? And if they can't then where on earth is the money going to come from? In the interests of research I spent a fair amount of time on Keith Sutton's website, www.suttonimages.com looking at pictures of A1GP machines, and came to the conclusion that the vast majority of them are unsponsored. The gate receipts from the sparsely attended rounds at Estoril and Lausitzring are hardly going to pay for the show, never mind the virtual ghost-race at Dubai, and it is unlikely that Sky et al are paying top dollar for the rights to screen a series which the general public will never have heard of (Although as of last weekend, I dare say the value of the Dutch coverage will have skyrocketed, now Jos Verstappen has finally won a motor race of some significance).

One can't help feeling that the original plan had involved rather more star names than have actually come forward, that the organisers had hoped at the very least to snare a few mid-grid F1 runners and a few faces from Champ Car and IRL, to help attract press attention and give the series some credibility. The utter domination of the DAMS/France team won't exactly have helped matters either, as people aren't exactly on the edges of their seats waiting to see who will win the series this year.

There is something of the feel of an expensive failure about A1. That's a shame, not least because the idea of running a major racing series through the fallow period of the European mid-winter was really quite appealing. Some of the racing has, apparently, been excellent, and it was great to see proper single seaters on the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit again. It was cheering too, to see that at the Brands Hatch race at least, the presence of a half-way competitive sort-of Pakistani driver had attracted a new audience to the sport - I've never seen so many Asian faces before at a motor race, and it would be good to think that some might have been bitten by the bug, and be back for more in future (That and anything which might upset Norman Tebbit has got to be a good thing). Unfortunately, I rather suspect that none of it will prove to be enough to keep the series afloat in the long term.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The strange death of the World Rally Championship?

So is the World Rally Championship, which kicked off in Monte Carlo this weekend, in basically decent health despite the rash of withdrawals over the winter, or is it in serious, perhaps even terminal decline?

There are just two works teams in the series this year, and to make matters worse, each of those teams is running only one true top-line driver - Petter Solberg at Subaru and Marcus Gronholm over at Ford. Neither Miko Hirvonen at Ford, nor Stephane Sarrazin and Chris Atkinson at Subaru, have ever won a WRC round before, and barring disasters amongst the front runners, or a sudden improvement in form, they are unlikely to do so this year.

In addition to Gronholm and Solberg, Sebastian Loeb, the reigning world champion, must be considered a serious contender for the title again this year. His privately entered Kronos Racing Citroen looks for all the world like a thinly disguised works effort - Citroen even paid the £140k entry fee to register the team for manufacturers points. Three serious contenders may be enough to make for an interesting world championship battle, providing that Ford, Subaru and Kronos/Citroen all provide their lead drivers with competitive cars. Gronholm, Solberg and Loeb are all past or current world champions and stand head and shoulders above the rest of the field and a battle on a level playing field between these three will be well worth following. On the evidence of Monte Carlo, Loeb would appear still to have a significant competitive advantage, despite eventually losing out as a result of his first day error. The Frenchman, though, has always been particularly quick at Monte Carlo. Of his rivals, Gronholm had never won on tarmac until Sunday, despite being a double world champion, and Solberg, who went out early on with mechanical problems, has something of a jinx at Monte Carlo. In any case, as the season progresses, it is likely that the Citroen, which, for all that it may be a virtual works effort, will not be developed as heavily as its rivals and Loeb's current advantage may dissipate.

Markko Martin, the ex-Peugeot driver, has been particularly vocal in his criticisms of the current state of the championship, remarking that there are only three paid rides going, and that it is little more than a "hobby championship" for rich amateurs at present. I am not privy to the details of the contracts between Hirvonen, Atkinson and Sarrazin and their teams, so I don't know if money is changing hands in either direction. However, it is not clear that the absence of top-line drivers from the series is down to the lack of drives available. It is more the case that many of the big name drivers of the last ten years have come to the end of their careers over the last year or two. Past champions Sainz and Makinen have both called it a day over the last couple of years, while 2001 champion Richard Burns sadly passed away at the end of last year. Other past rally winners, such as Delecour, Auriol and Schwarz have also reached an age where options tend to run out. This leaves only Martin, whose absence may in part be explained by his ambivalence towards the whole sport following the accident which killed his long time co-driver Michael Park last year, and Scots rally legend, Colin McRae, who is also in semi-retirement. McRae showed that he still has a fair amount of pace, getting Skoda's Fabia much closer to the pace in Australia than either of its regular drivers had done all year, but there can be little doubt that he was comprehensively outclassed by Loeb in their time together at Citroen. Consequently, it is more than likely that there is a certain degree of disagreement between McRae and the major team bosses over how much he deserves to be recompensed for his services.

If there are only three works teams worth the name, then from the spectators' point of view, what the series needs is an influx of good, serious private entries. There are after all, plenty of WRC cars around now, and as I can confirm from my trips to see the Jim Clark rally in the past few years, they don't have to be top-line entries driven by world class drivers to look spectacular. Here, the news from Monte Carlo seems to be good. There were, if anything, more WRC cars on the entry than in previous years and many of the private entries looked really quite quick. Gigi Galli flew on the opening day in a Ralliart Italia entered Mitsubishi and Toni Gardemeister scored a podium finish and a fastest stage time in his Astra entered Peugeot 307. There were more Skoda Fabias than ever before at the Monte Carlo and Duval scored a fastest time on the first day with his, while Panizzi also showed well early on, suggesting that the Fabia is a pretty quick car on the rare occasions when it works properly. The exit of the works teams have left open more opportunity for the private teams to pick up a decent result and this has attracted a number of squads to the series. The veteran Manfred Stohl won the last two stages of the rally and beat 3 of the works drivers to finish 4th in his OMV backed 307 and he is contracted to do a full season (It has to be said that Stohl, who is decently quick and has vast experience, might make a better works no2 driver from a points-collecting point of view, than any of the drivers they have got).

The majority of the private teams are not intending to compete in all 16 rounds of the championship, but the European rounds, at least, are not likely to want for decent private entries. The Australian and Japanese rounds are likely to attract good local drivers, which leaves only the far-flung rounds in Argentina and Mexico, and possibly the car-wrecking rounds in Turkey and Cyprus looking likely to be rather lacking in proper entrants.

I'm hardly the only person who thinks that the world rally championship has gone in the wrong direction in a number of ways over the last few years, and I'll doubtless come back to this at some point in future. The Monte Carlo rally always tends to show the series off in best light: The nature of the stages make for good television and the rally's history and reputation usually guarantee a decent entry in fallow years for the championship as a whole. But at this stage, the series looks, if anything, to be a little more open than it was the year before.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Caveat Emptor - a brief explanation of the purpose of this blog

Somewhere around the age of 12, it dawned on me that, having suffered the singular misfortune not to be born to multi-millionaires who could afford to bankroll a single seater career for their clumsy, ill-coordinated not-quite-last to be picked for games son, I was probably never going to be a professional racing driver.

Its taken me a little longer to realise that with a CV that reads "turkey packer/ barman/ fish gutter/ computer programme/ waiter/ middle ranking civil servant" its almost equally unlikely that I'll ever get paid to write about those who are either. Having heard tale of the pay and conditions over at Haymarket, and after reminding myself that ultimately, I would have been working for Michael Hestletine, I can more or less live with that.

So this Blog is essentially intended as an outlet for the frustrated motorsport journalist in me. What it is not intended to be is a source for breaking news stories. There are plenty of places on the web you can go to find out whom its rumoured Kimi Raikkonen will be driving for this week, who Bernie Ecclestone has persuaded to spend billions of pounds of taxpayers money building a white elephant Tilkedrome for Bernie, and the precise brand of balsawood which will be used in the construction of the interim 'Super Aguri F1' chassis. Personally, I recommend:

http://www.autosport.com (if you can be bothered with their subscription fee)
http://www.itv-f1.com (grudgingly)
http://www.dailysportscar.co.uk (subscription again for the most part)

Instead the idea is that roughly weekly (or as frequently as I find the time, inclination and energy to write) I'll write a vaguely topical article on something motorsports related that has caught my eye. As often as not that will be something about F1, but from time to time I'll doubtless spout ill-informedly on the subject of pretty much anything that involves going as quickly as possible on four wheels.